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I have a highly talented junior employee in the role of scrum master. She’s outperformed on most tasks and is starting to take on a larger role on the project. As the manager I’ve assigned multiple difficult technical tasks to a freelance architect who is a specialist in the software as am I. In the scrum call she blasted him to the team say he is three weeks late with a delivery and does not document the work which he does but she does not see the bigger picture and that her delivery was lower priority for him.

He is away on parental leave and was not expected to complete this work until he returned. The issue is partially his fault as culturally he never says no, but that is a different issue. My other team members explicitly explained this to her as did I that he is performing well and it’s the third time she brings it up in the group.

When I tried to 1:1 with her to ask her to consider his situation and that she does not always complete her minor tasks when it’s lower priority she said that I was being disrespectful. I agree that I could have used more tact but I was trying to get her to be a bit empathetic and to see the bigger picture. Which is the project is not impacted and to remember that we are a team and to respect each other.

She is very focused on excellence and anything less then perfect is likely to meet some criticism. Other team members have brought this concern to me before including one of the other managers on the program. She is young and self conscious but has a strong will and a lot of potential. How do I coach her out of becoming a brilliant jerk?

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    Had she been told that this person was on parental leave? Were the architect's stories still in the sprint? – cdkMoose Nov 23 '18 at 18:15
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    Yes she definitely deflects anything remotely close to a negative feedback. – JPK Nov 23 '18 at 18:21
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    Have you discussed with her the possibility that Scrum Master might not be the best position for her talents? – NotMe Nov 24 '18 at 1:28
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    I am confused by her being called "talented" in the title, as, apparently, she utterly, totally, completely, failed in the simplest possible task, getting some project done by day X. Right? – Fattie Nov 24 '18 at 4:32
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    Was the team blocked by the failure of this architect to deliver in time? If so, she is right to address this (that is her task as a scrum master), it might just mean that the way she gives this feedback needs to change. Was this delay expected, then that is a failure of the product owner and team (including the scrum master) to properly plan their sprint. – Mark Rotteveel Nov 24 '18 at 11:19
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When I read the title I thought you meant a highly intelligent person who is critical of her seniors and is right in her criticism, a kind of a maverick who's too straightforward.

However, if the architect wasn't expected to and wasn't paid for working on the tasks she accused him of not performing, the feedback she gave him was unfair. Unfair feedback can affect team performance by creating unnecessary drama. It can affect team members' motivation and your employee's standing in the team. Not to mention that you can lose a good, as I understand, contractor because of that.

You first need to analyse whether it was a one-time mistake or she tends to be unfair and not fact-based frequently.

If it happened one time, don't care too much. If it repeats you need to talk to her.

I'm a highly critical person myself. I have very high standards and hate it when people don't fulfil them. However, I use the same high standards for myself and was mortified when I made a mistake some time ago. Holding oneself to the same rigorous standards one use for others is really a necessary thing if one doesn't want to be seen as a jerk and avoided.

29

This is not a highly talented valuable worker. This is a prima donna. People like this in a team if they don't learn to tone down and see the bigger pictures, are not a big asset in that sort of position, and can be a liability if they affect team morale.

You have already tried the nice way. Take away her status where she thinks it's her responsibility to make judgements on others until she is matured enough for the role. Talent and potential are no match for maturity and experience working with teams.

If you think her potential warrants it, give her a heads up along the lines of 'You're very good at what you do, but you're not doing everything that's needed which is part of the role. This is a team, you're going to need to take in the whole picture if I'm to let you continue in this role, I gave you a break, please don't make me regret it.' and move forwards from whether you judge her to be compliant or not. If you think she is explain to her the ramifications of the role in more detail and then see how it goes. If not, demote her role.

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    All completely correct. – Fattie Nov 24 '18 at 4:22
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    I would add that if the team doesn't trust her as a scrum master, they'll be less likely to raise the alerts fearing to be blasted and blamed in front of everyone. As she won't have a genuine visibility on the delivery statuses and alerts, all the projections (velocity, alerts, blocking points) will be missing from her analysis. Other than that, the team retrospective will become a western movie. – Answers_Seeker Nov 25 '18 at 14:22
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    @Answers_Seeker Yep, she's a liability when that happens. In particular unfairly hitting out at a freelancer is an easy way end up with no freelancer and a bad rep for the company is some circles. I'd have ripped the company a new orifice at top level, pretended to be very hurt, and doubled my price. – Kilisi Nov 25 '18 at 14:34
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    Wish I read your comment, @Kilisi before I almost quit my contracting job because of a primadonna like OP's situation. Fortunately the manager there knew what he was dealing with and handled it pretty similarly to what you described. – BoboDarph Nov 26 '18 at 15:41
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    This may well be a highly talented valuable worker who reacted badly to some particular situations, and needs to learn more and develop a better attitude. Juniors almost by definition don't know how to handle everything, and often need some attitude adjustment. – David Thornley Nov 27 '18 at 16:55
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You put her in the role of a SCRUM Master. It is the function of SCRUM Master to make sure that the team has an open exchange on the current status of the user stories. If a User story is open for some time, it will be repeatedly openly discussed that there is no progress, but normally without any moral/disciplinary "developer should work harder" etc. implications. However, it is the function of a SCRUM master to ask for the reasons in order to make sure that the team can deal with it. So that means, yes, if you follow SCRUM the user story will come up until it is fixed - here she is just doing her Job.

Now we come to the interesting part: You "assigned" somebody to "multiple difficult" tasks. Normally a Agile team has a fixed procedure if a task gets stuck: They agree in the daily how to address the issue. Normally people are not assigned in SCRUM to multiple tasks. Normally they are assigned to a single user story. In good agile teams there is no "single point o failure", but every User Story could be handled by sufficiently many people in the team.

So that means that there is a mismatch between her supposed role in the team and the execution of the process. This will cause friction, and you may think how to fix it.

  • In my limited Scrum experience, the tasks are usually shorter than one sprint, and sometimes two tasks can profitably be overlapped. If I need somebody's response to continue with task A, I'd rather have a B to work on while waiting. For these reasons, we often give one person more than one story per sprint. The real insight in your second paragraph is that OP assigned multiple vital tasks to a single person, without allowing the scrum team to deal normally with their delay. – David Thornley Nov 27 '18 at 16:53
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When I tried to 1:1 with her to ask her to consider his situation and that she does not always complete her minor tasks when it’s lower priority she said that I was being disrespectful.

You need to consider that she is insecure in this situation and doesn't want to or doesn't know how to deal with it effectively. This feels like an emotional reaction to a situation that needs to be handled professionally, not emotionally.

You told her directly that her reaction was not appropriate but she always deflected the fault to someone else:

  • The developer is to blame for being late. She did everything right, he destroyed her perfect result.

  • If you try to put the blame on her, she tells you you're being disrespecting just to shut you up.

You need to talk to her again. You absolutely need to concentrate on the project, not on personal responsibilities. It must be the goal of everyone in the team to successfully finish the project. Putting blame on someone or even looking for the cause of a problem with the intention of blaming someone is a waste of time because it distracts you from your goal.

Make it absolutely clear that she didn't make a mistake and isn't blamed for the late delivety of the component either. If the project fails, the whole team is responsible, not just one person. Try to take some pressure from her so she doesn't feel like she has to forward the pressure onto her team members.

  • I think this is one of the best answers here. Too many of them are along the lines of remove her when she's performing excellently with the single instance which I view as an exception. People unforgiving to any mistakes should probably not be managers. Rather I think the right move is to stop playing the blame game and focus on delivery. – JPK Nov 26 '18 at 23:39
2

As someone who also does this fairly regularly (although I've learned to phrase my "blasting people" into more a more generalized tone, focusing on the problem and not the person), I can empathize with her. Based on my experiences, here's what I would do:

  1. Encourage her to focus on processes, not people. Rather than "Joe was late with the widget constructor", it should be "The widget constructor was late".

  2. Explain the freelancer's situation. She will understand. She won't respect it, but she will at least gain perspective. However, if you think this is going to be a good enough answer for her, it isn't. Don't try to frame it as "you should accept Joe being late because XYZ", you should frame it as "Joe was late, and that's a problem. But you should understand XYZ before you go off the rails".

  3. People like her (and me) just want everything to go smoothly the first time. This is important both for us and for you. The reason why we want it to go well is because, if it doesn't go well, then someone has to pick up the slack, and that person might be us. Why should we have to pick up the pieces of someone else's disaster? Have them do it right the first time, and then everything will go well. From a business perspective. if you build something poorly, then you're going to have to spend more time building it right the next time. That's more time it will take, and more money it will cost the business paying our salaries to do the same job twice. So you should care deeply about what she has to say, not only because she is saying it, but also because there are good reasons behind it.

  4. Regarding this case in particular, presumably this person was waiting on Joe to finish his task before she could do her own task; she was dependent on Joe in some way. The amount of time Joe was late was time she spent twiddling her thumbs doing nothing, and people like me hate that. It's the worst feeling to be sitting in an office for 8 hours a day with nothing to do waiting on something that should have been done a week ago. We have stuff to do, there's Netflix to watch, exercise to engage in, laundry to wash, cooking to do, grocery shopping, and so on, and she's stuck at work at her desk doing nothing because Joe is late (yes, she'd be at her desk even if Joe was on time; the important part is the "doing nothing" part, which feels like a waste of time that could be better spent elsewhere). It's highly frustrating (to be honest, at the moment I'm in a similar situation which is why I'm even bothering to write this in the first place).

  5. She understands that the past is the past, and she can't retroactively make Joe get his work done faster. However, she would really like it if, if Joe is going to take 3 weeks parental leave, then Joe should not commit to finishing his task until his parental leave is done. Then everyone can plan and schedule properly, and she as the Scrum Master can reprioritize work based on what will be done and when, in a proper way. She just wants everything to go smoothly, and she sees Joe as preventing her from doing that.

  6. You, as the manager, should want the same thing she does, so you're working in the same direction but seem to be at odds. Therefore you, as the manager, should explain you understand her frustrations, explain to her a better way to handle herself so as not to appear so abrasive in future, and you should help her in future situations like this, e.g. by explaining "Joe is on parental leave for 3 weeks, let's not schedule things dependent on him for that period of time".

  7. As for what to do with Joe, you should explain to Joe that he needs to say no. It's not a matter of looking bad or whatever, it's a matter of scheduling. If he says that he will be done a project in a week and it takes 2, then the people dependent on him to do their work in that second week will be blocked. That costs money for the business paying the salaries of people who are blocked and wasting cycles. Explain to Joe that if he can't do it, then it is better for the team for him to say he can't do it than to promise the moon and not deliver it. If Joe is from a culture in which saying no is looked on as a bad thing (I know many such cultures, they definitely exist), you need to do all you can to assuage that fear in Joe. You need to make Joe comfortable with saying no without fearing that it will cause him to lose his job or his reputation down the line. Joe probably says yes to everything because he's afraid if he says no then he will be seen as a slacker, and you need to assure Joe that that's not what's happening.

  • A variation on the last paragraph might be to ask Joe to give his own estimates to you, and you pass them on. There are deeper cultural reasons for not wanting to say "no", and it won't be easy to change him. – David Thornley Nov 27 '18 at 16:48
  • @DavidThornley Joe might just say "I'll have it done tomorrow" to everything in that case, for the same reason as outlined above. It is something to try, but it might not work as expected. – Ertai87 Nov 27 '18 at 20:11
  • Yup, there is no definite way of fixing this. Just some things to try. – David Thornley Nov 30 '18 at 3:35
  • "and she as the Scrum Master can reprioritize work " No! That's what the PO does. – Erik Nov 30 '18 at 13:50
2

This...

In the scrum call she blasted him to the team say he is three weeks late with a delivery and does not document the work which he does but she does not see the bigger picture and that her delivery was lower priority for him.

..and this:

Skilled junior employee critical of her seniors

... are inconsistent. She clearly isn't skilled in my view. Skilled would be someone who can manage the situation. She is not managing the situation effectively.

This is also an issue...

My other team members explicitly explained this to her as did I that he is performing well and it’s the third time she brings it up in the group.

.. then this...

Which is the project is not impacted and to remember that we are a team and to respect each other.

.. finally this:

brilliant jerk

Sorry for the quotes, but I need to build a body of evidence before I respond. The truth here, is she isn't brilliant. If she was brilliant then the obvious wouldn't be so difficult for her to grasp. Personally, I think you're putting her on a pedestal. She's delivered on some difficult tasks, but that doesn't make her brilliant. That makes her effective on delivering tasks. But, there's more to her position than delivery. There's the need to understand group dynamics and understand how communication works between people. She clearly has very poor listening skills and it's affecting the team. In my view, the problem is she's seen as "brilliant", she isn't, all evidence point to her not being brilliant. All evidence points to someone who is competent and bull headed.

The coaching I'd recommend is to be stern. But, considering you had to coach her on empathy, I don't know what more you could do with that sort of personality.

  • Hey thank you for the perspective. I can action some of these like adding to her growth plan! As for why I think she's brilliant is because she's organized a mulitbillion dollar business process independently going throughout dozens of country's and businesses. The skill level this takes is beyond 90% of the people in IT. Her people skills are strong in areas but she is bull headed and I leverage that. It is a strength and not just a weakness! Her impatience is heavily due to stress that I've personally put her under and I'm not going to punish her for my decision making. – JPK Nov 30 '18 at 20:15
  • @JPK With all respect. If you put people in difficult circumstances and pressure them, and when they break, ask for help from the stack to deal with someone for whom you completely overloaded with work and responsibility... Then it's you who might need coaching. – ShinEmperor Dec 3 '18 at 12:14
  • The stress was because there is a presentation which she was going to be leading. Stress is a normal part of work. I don't think I've said that she is overloaded? My team works an 8 hour workday. We have a deadline from upper management because if we miss it then it will cost the company, but none of this is out of the ordinary. Work is stressful! I do not think she broke she just got annoyed and vented on a teammate. Please don't invent drama on what is a fairly normal situation. – JPK Dec 3 '18 at 13:03

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